Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19, Sz.73 (BB 82)

Program Note

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19, Sz.73 (BB 82) (1925)

“It will be hellish music if I succeed,” wrote Béla Bartók to his wife in a letter from 1918. He was writing to her about the composition of his new ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin—and judging by the scandalous reception of its Cologne premier eight years later in 1926, succeed he did. The work was banned for years afterward in Germany due to its obscenity.

With a plot straight from the one-act expressionist play by Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel, The Miraculous Mandarin formed an ironic critique on exoticism, eroticism, and naturalism, all topics which particularly interested Bartók. After reading the play in a literary magazine Bartók immediately decided to set it to music.

The ballet opens with an image of a cityscape, a fierce metropolitan swamp in which the listener can feel the grime, grit, and smog swirling in the air as scales of chaotic city wind whir past. The compositional lens eventually focuses on three destitute tramps who ensnare a beautiful young girl in their scheme to steal riches from passersby. They force the girl to dance seductively at the window of a derelict building, luring men inside where the robbers can then strip them of their valuables. Their first two attempts prove unsuccessful; the first man is just an old cavalier and the second is a “shy youth,” neither of whom have anything on them worth stealing. The third man, however, is a strange and uncommon figure on the street. He is a Mandarin, a wealthy Chinese official. The girl takes much convincing to dance her hesitant, yet seductive lockspiel for this out-of-place foreigner, but she eventually bends to the will of her captors. The Mandarin grows mad with desire and comes inside, where he leaps at the girl, hungry for an embrace. The girl, horrified by the contact with this strange man, struggles and breaks away, but not before the robbers have a chance to steal all of his possessions. Having no further use for the Mandarin, the robbers try to kill him. They try three times, all unsuccessfully: the first time by smothering him, the second by stabbing him, and the third by hanging him from a lamp hook. The lamp hook breaks and plunges the room into darkness. The man emits a miraculous ghostly blue color on the floor where he has fallen, from which the girl and the robbers can see that he still stares at the girl with desire. She smiles, knowing what must be done. She cradles him in an embrace, and having had his longing fulfilled, the Mandarin’s wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

Lengyel called his play a “pantomime grotesque”, and as such used the tool of stark and one-sided characterization natural to the genre of of pantomime to turn individual characters into clear symbols of a larger collective identity. Coming out of the pandemonium that was World War I, Lengyel brutally and honestly critiqued a few very important societal issues in a quintessentially expressionist manner: the destitution of common people such as the robbers, the ostracization and discrimination against Chinese and other Asian citizens, and the sexualization of women. All the characters in his play operate as a part of a bigger machine; they are forced into their actions by their societal situation rather than by their own autonomy (an idea on which Fritz Lang would capitalize in his iconic 1927 expressionist silent film, Metropolis). Given that information, the ending can be interpreted in two ways. It could be that it is an optimistic cry for compassion—the girl gives love to the Mandarin in his moment of need. But this interpretations requires that the audience looks at the girl as more than a flat character/symbol; in this case she must overcome her apprehension of the foreigner in order to give him love. Another interpretation is that the girl wants to be rid of the Mandarin as badly as the thieves, and knows that, despite her personal pain, by giving him sexual pleasure she will bring about his death. In this case, it is a sacrifice both of the Mandarin’s life and of the woman’s free will, as she becomes a slave to the thieves who took her against her will.

Bartók was not the only composer inspired by the theme of sacrifice. Just five years before Bartók began composing The Miraculous Mandarin, Stravinsky premiered his 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring, in Paris, which ended in a similarly shocking revolt from the audience. Stravinsky’s influential ballet portrayed the primitive sacrifice of young virgins to the gods of an ancient tribe. This must have been a particularly interesting topic for Bartók, given his passion for, and meticulous knowledge of, folklore and folk music. Just as Stravinsky was doing by imitating the sound of primitive music, Bartók went back to the archaic and natural musical material of Hungary and Rumania to find inspiration. An example of his calling on folk music can be found in the melody of the girl’s seductive lockspiels. Her sexual call begins with an open fifth, a “natural” interval (Charles Darwin even hypothesized that humans’ love of music has its origin in mating calls) and unfolds even as a blaring cityscape roars on either side of her. Bartók brings the opposing sounds of his time to The Miraculous Mandarin, showing audiences of his time and of ours the haunting juxtaposition of nature and industrialization.

—Annie Jacobs-Perkins